Making Sex Holy

Jewish tradition embraces love and sex as part of the human drive for holiness.

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For Genesis goes on from "Be fertile and multiply" to say, "A person should leave their parents and cleave unto their partner and be like one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). This one verse captures the basic underlying rhythms of the universe. Separation and striving for union. The world of Genesis is one of separation: light from darkness, sea from land, etc. We, each of us, know the utter aloneness of human existence. Our world is one of partiality, of brokenness, of loneliness, a world of light but darkness as well.

Yet as God said to the first human, lo tov heyot ha'adam l'vado--"it is not good for a human to be alone." All the rest of creation from the first day on is described as ki tov,"it is good." The one thing lo tov--"not good"--is a human alone.

The rhythm of the universe is set. We begin in separation and strive for wholeness. A person should leave his or her parents and cleave unto his or her partner and be like one flesh. We leave our parents (separation) to find another (unity). It is in the moment of sexual union that we come closest to wholeness. Instead of alienation and apartness, we become as one flesh. We lose our sense of twoness and become as one. In sexual union and in love there is the holiness of being in relationship to rather than in alienation from the other.

In fact, the mystery and power of sex is a gateway not just to the holiness of relationships but the holiness of God. For Genesis tells us we are all created in the image of God. Interacting with other people is interacting with other divine images, thus reminding us of who we are and reminding us who created us and who calls us to restore holiness and wholeness to the world: God.

What About Lust?

By now, you're probably thinking that this is all very nice. For surely love--deep love, expressed romantically and erotically--is holy and won­derful. But there is a kind of sexual love that feels more like partiality than wholeness, more like lust than love, or more like simply sex. So where is holiness in those moments? Despite the fact that more people say the words "Oh God" with fervor in a moment of passion in the bedroom than in any synagogue, I'm not sure that it is an expression of supreme religious faith.

Judaism calls us to strive for an ideal. That ideal is not platonic love but rather a love that is deep, mutual, caring, and expressed in every way, including and especially through the physical. The tradition un­derstands that we will live far from that ideal but nevertheless believes the closer to the ideal the better, and recognizes that we deeply long "not to be alone" but to cleave together as one flesh.

Hasidism believed not just that the underlying impulse in the universe is human beings striving for wholeness, but that the whole uni­verse is striving for wholeness. Our task is tikkun olam, "repairing the world," and restoring even God to wholeness. The Hasidic writers therefore taught that when you are trying to pray and instead find yourself distracted by thoughts of attraction to another human being, instead of saying, "Feh! I'm such a lowlife," you should realize that all attraction, all love is just a reflection of this impulse underlying everything to love God, to come close and cleave to God, to experience the unity of the world.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.